Enlightenment, French sicle des Lumires (literally century of the Enlightened), German Aufklrung, a European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries in which ideas concerning God, reason, nature, and humanity were synthesized into a worldview that gained wide assent in the West and that instigated revolutionary developments in art, philosophy, and politics. Central to Enlightenment thought were the use and celebration of reason, the power by which humans understand the universe and improve their own condition. The goals of rational humanity were considered to be knowledge, freedom, and happiness.
Historians place the Enlightenment in Europe (with a strong emphasis on France) during the late 17th and the 18th centuries, or, more comprehensively, between the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and the French Revolution of 1789. It represents a phase in the intellectual history of Europe and also programs of reform, inspired by a belief in the possibility of a better world, that outlined specific targets for criticism and programs of action.
The roots of the Enlightenment can be found in the humanism of the Renaissance, with its emphasis on the study of Classical literature. The Protestant Reformation, with its antipathy toward received religious dogma, was another precursor. Perhaps the most important sources of what became the Enlightenment were the complementary rational and empirical methods of discovering truth that were introduced by the scientific revolution.
It was thought during the Enlightenment that human reasoning could discover truths about the world, religion, and politics and could be used to improve the lives of humankind. Skepticism about received wisdom was another important idea; everything was to be subjected to testing and rational analysis. Religious tolerance and the idea that individuals should be free from coercion in their personal lives and consciences were also Enlightenment ideas.
The French Revolution and the American Revolution were almost direct results of Enlightenment thinking. The idea that society is a social contract between the government and the governed stemmed from the Enlightenment as well. Widespread education for children and the founding of universities and libraries also came about as a result. However, there was a countermovement that followed the Enlightenment in the late 18th and mid-19th centuriesRomanticism.
A brief treatment of the Enlightenment follows. For full treatment, see Europe, history of: The Enlightenment.
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history of Europe: The Enlightenment
The Enlightenment was both a movement and a state of mind. The term represents a phase in the intellectual history of Europe,
The powers and uses of reason had first been explored by the philosophers of ancient Greece. The Romans adopted and preserved much of Greek culture, notably including the ideas of a rational natural order and natural law. Amid the turmoil of empire, however, a new concern arose for personal salvation, and the way was paved for the triumph of the Christian religion. Christian thinkers gradually found uses for their Greco-Roman heritage. The system of thought known as Scholasticism, culminating in the work of Thomas Aquinas, resurrected reason as a tool of understanding but subordinated it to spiritual revelation and the revealed truths of Christianity.
The intellectual and political edifice of Christianity, seemingly impregnable in the Middle Ages, fell in turn to the assaults made on it by humanism, the Renaissance, and the Protestant Reformation. Humanism bred the experimental science of Francis Bacon, Nicolaus Copernicus, and Galileo and the mathematical investigations of Ren Descartes, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and Sir Isaac Newton. The Renaissance rediscovered much of Classical culture and revived the notion of humans as creative beings, and the Reformation, more directly but in the long run no less effectively, challenged the monolithic authority of the Roman Catholic Church. For Martin Luther as for Bacon or Descartes, the way to truth lay in the application of human reason. Received authority, whether of Ptolemy in the sciences or of the church in matters of the spirit, was to be subject to the probings of unfettered minds.
The successful application of reason to any question depended on its correct applicationon the development of a methodology of reasoning that would serve as its own guarantee of validity. Such a methodology was most spectacularly achieved in the sciences and mathematics, where the logics of induction and deduction made possible the creation of a sweeping new cosmology. The success of Newton, in particular, in capturing in a few mathematical equations the laws that govern the motions of the planets, gave great impetus to a growing faith in the human capacity to attain knowledge. At the same time, the idea of the universe as a mechanism governed by a few simpleand discoverablelaws had a subversive effect on the concepts of a personal God and individual salvation that were central to Christianity.
Inevitably, the method of reason was applied to religion itself. The product of a search for a naturalrationalreligion was Deism, which, although never an organized cult or movement, conflicted with Christianity for two centuries, especially in England and France. For the Deist, a very few religious truths sufficed, and they were truths felt to be manifest to all rational beings: the existence of one God, often conceived of as architect or mechanician, the existence of a system of rewards and punishments administered by that God, and the obligation of humans to virtue and piety. Beyond the natural religion of the Deists lay the more radical products of the application of reason to religion: skepticism, atheism, and materialism.
The Enlightenment produced the first modern secularized theories of psychology and ethics. John Locke conceived of the human mind as being at birth a tabula rasa, a blank slate on which experience wrote freely and boldly, creating the individual character according to the individual experience of the world. Supposed innate qualities, such as goodness or original sin, had no reality. In a darker vein, Thomas Hobbes portrayed humans as moved solely by considerations of their own pleasure and pain. The notion of humans as neither good nor bad but interested principally in survival and the maximization of their own pleasure led to radical political theories. Where the state had once been viewed as an earthly approximation of an eternal order, with the City of Man modeled on the City of God, now it came to be seen as a mutually beneficial arrangement among humans aimed at protecting the natural rights and self-interest of each.
The idea of society as a social contract, however, contrasted sharply with the realities of actual societies. Thus, the Enlightenment became critical, reforming, and eventually revolutionary. Locke and Jeremy Bentham in England, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot, and Condorcet in France, and Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson in colonial America all contributed to an evolving critique of the arbitrary, authoritarian state and to sketching the outline of a higher form of social organization, based on natural rights and functioning as a political democracy. Such powerful ideas found expression as reform in England and as revolution in France and America.
The Enlightenment expired as the victim of its own excesses. The more rarefied the religion of the Deists became, the less it offered those who sought solace or salvation. The celebration of abstract reason provoked contrary spirits to begin exploring the world of sensation and emotion in the cultural movement known as Romanticism. The Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution severely tested the belief that an egalitarian society could govern itself. The high optimism that marked much of Enlightenment thought, however, survived as one of the movements most-enduring legacies: the belief that human history is a record of general progress.
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